Seed World

3 Things to Know About Baijiu

Made from fermented sorghum and other grains, baijiu has been distilled in China since at least the Yuan Dynasty.

You’ve likely never heard of the world’s most-consumed spirit, but baijiu is a big reason Chinese distillers are interested in new sorghum varieties.

It’s the world’s most-consumed spirit, and you’ve likely never heard of it, let alone had a taste.

It’s called baijiu, and it’s been consumed by the Chinese for a very long time. Distilled from fermented sorghum and other grains, it’s been distilled in China since at least the Yuan Dynasty, which began in 1271. It’s the best-selling spirit in the world, with nearly 3 billion gallons sold last year, according to statistics.

Despite being little-known outside of its home country, the sorghum breeding community is becoming increasingly aware of baijiu. Not because breeders prefer drinking it over other adult beverages, but because the baijiu industry is on the hunt for ideal varieties it can use to produce its prized product.

Here are three things to know about this popular Asian beverage and its connection to the sorghum breeding world.

  1. Chinese baijiu producers want sorghum from abroad. U.S. sorghum has already been sold to China in 2019 for use in the baijiu industry, according to Reece Cannady, U.S. Grains Council manager of global trade. Chinese researchers will examine different formulations and processes for creating baijiu with U.S. sorghum varieties, comparing the effect of U.S. sorghum to domestic Chinese sorghum in the distilling process.
  2. Distillers in China are on the hunt for new varieties. Cannady traveled to China in March with China-based U.S. Grains Council staff and a United Sorghum Checkoff Program (USCP) delegation. The group visited baijiu production facilities as well Jiangnan Southern University in Wuxi, where research is being funded by the Council and USCP to discover what types of sorghum are preferred for use in baijiu and what recipes can draw out the favorable flavor compounds in these varieties.
  3. Tannin waxy sorghum is highly prized for making baijiu, presumably because alcohol can be made more efficiently with waxy sorghum due to reduced fermentation times and it is possible that the tannin trait mimics the grain traditionally used for baijiu production, according to William Rooney, a sorghum breeder at Texas A&M University. According to Professor Chris Blanchard, the director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Functional Grains at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, there are lots of different types of baijiu from different regions with different characteristics, “so we need to understand the complexities and see where the opportunities are for Australian sorghum.” Researchers are testing Australian sorghum varieties for alcohol yield and other parameters important to Chinese buyers. Blanchard hopes lines of sorghum will be identified, through collaboration with the University of Queensland’s Professor David Jordan, that will be ideal for baijiu production.